Remembering Roswell Rudd, A Jazz Musician With An Ebullient Sound

Jan 5, 2018
Originally published on January 8, 2018 7:14 am
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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Roswell Rudd, the leading trombonist of the 1960s and '70s jazz avant-garde, died last month at his home in Kerhonkson, N.Y. He was 82. Rudd started out playing Dixieland and then graduated to free jazz. He was an early champion of composers Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols. In the 1980s, Rudd disappeared from the jazz scene. He lived in the Catskills and played in house bands of resort hotels.

In the second half of the 1990s, Rudd re-emerged and reunited with earlier jazz associates, including the New York Art Quartet, Archie Shepp and soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy. He explored world music, collaborating with musicians from the West African nation of Mali for his recording "Malicool." Here's an excerpt of jazz critic Kevin Whitehead's recent review of Rudd's last recording, which came out shortly before his death, a quartet album called "Embrace."


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: The late Roswell Rudd on Billy Strayhorn's "Something To Live For." Rudd had always had a glorious sound on trombone even when he'd play a lightweight student model. When I first saw him in concert, I was surprised he wasn't bruisingly (ph) loud because the sound projected so dramatically. But that was true even when he dropped to a stage whisper. Roswell Rudd's sound can be so voice-like, especially when he shapes his notes with a plunger mute, it's no wonder he got on with singers, like the one on his new album "Embrace." Brooklyn's Fay Victor.


FAY VICTOR: (Singing) I thought I found a man I could trust. What a bust if this is how my story ends. He's going to turn me down and say, can't we be friends?


WHITEHEAD: Fay Victor and Roswell Rudd had bonded over a mutual love of Herbie Nichols tunes, but that was just the start. Her own low swoops and fine-tuning of pitch, her bends, moans and growls fit right in with his. Like him, she also has a dramatic sense of phrasing. Lest you miss the parallels, they kick off one old ballad by imitating each other.


VICTOR: (Singing) I hadn't anyone till you. I was lonely till you.

WHITEHEAD: This album's look back at life and classic tunes has a valedictory air. The quartet also play Monk's "Pannonica," Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" and "The House Of The Rising Sun." Rudd had been ill a few years at the time of this 2016 recording but paces himself well and doesn't waste a move. Like other greats who've reached a certain age, he packs a lot of wisdom into every note. But he'd sounded like a wise, old soul long before that. "Embrace" is vintage Roswell Rudd, and that is saying something.

DAVIES: Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead on Roswell Rudd's last recording, "Embrace," released late last year. Terry spoke with Roswell Rudd in 2002.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Roswell Rudd, although you became known for your playing in the avant-garde, you started off in a traditional jazz band while you were at Yale, a band called Eli's Chosen Six. Why did you first gravitate toward, you know, traditional jazz, early jazz?

ROSWELL RUDD: This was the music that I grew up with in the house. My father was an amateur drummer, and he practiced to recordings of music from the '20s and '30s and '40s. And he had friends who played like this who would come over occasionally. He would scout around and find people that liked to improvise and play jazz. This was the music that I had - that I learned from. My function at the time as a child growing up in this was to dance, and I didn't know it at the time, but I was dancing and scatting while these jam sessions and, you know, playing along with the records was going on.

GROSS: I want to play something from what I think is the first record you ever recorded on, and it's from the band Eli's Chosen Six, the band you played with at Yale.

RUDD: Yeah. We would go out on the weekends and barnstorm at different fraternities all over the East Coast, you know, making 400-mile trips during the day between gigs and whatever. It was a good band musically. Everybody pulled their own weight. We were trying to evolve our repertory over the course of the four years, and it was together you could hear that. You could hear a lot of development.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear a track from the Eli's Chosen Six recording from the mid-1950s? And this is called "That Da-Da Strain." And you take a solo pretty early on.


GROSS: Trombonist Roswell Rudd with the band that he played in in college, Eli's Chosen Six, when he was in Yale, and that was recorded in the mid-1950s. What was your path from traditional jazz to the avant-garde?

RUDD: It was done through improvisation or, more specifically, what I like to call free counterpoint. That's what the traditional jazz had in common with what people were calling the avant-garde jazz or the new thing that I was a part of in the early '60s in New York City. That was the common element. People always say, you know, how did you make such a giant step? You didn't play any bebop or anything. You went right from playing Dixieland to free jazz. For me, it was not a big leap. It was mainly, you know, having a good sense of what to do in a free improvisational setting with, you know, a couple of other horn players and a rhythm section, which is primarily what I did with Dixieland - you know, just finding a good part for myself and being able, you know, at the drop of a hat, to respond what - to what other players were doing and find that golden mean through the texture.

GROSS: Were there musicians who helped lead you in that direction, too, who helped - who introduced you to different kinds of sounds or a different way of thinking?

RUDD: Well, I think, really, the first musician that I can recall who was going where I never heard anybody go before was Cecil Taylor. And I was able to hear him at the old Five Spot, back in the mid-50s, with a great quartet that he had with Steve Lacy, who I still play with, Buell Neidlinger, the bassist, and Denis Charles, a drummer, who's no longer with us. But it was a marvelous quartet. And I really couldn't get enough of an earful from these guys. They really opened up a door for me, musically.

GROSS: Did you hear a way, early on, of translating what Cecil Taylor was doing on piano to what you could do on trombone?

RUDD: Yes. In fact, I think, at times, I was trying to get this clumsy instrument - this trombone - to express in a way that Cecil Taylor did. Although I found it very cumbersome, at the same time, it made me strive beyond myself for effects that I had never thought possible. And my trombonist friend, Grachan Moncur III - Grachan told me that back in those days, the thing that he liked about my playing so much was the fact that I was trying to do things that he'd never heard before on the trombone. And I think Cecil had a lot to do with that.

GROSS: You were also playing things on the trombone that probably came from early jazz, but you were playing them in a very contemporary setting. The kind of smears and, like, distorted sounds that a lot of the early players say in the Ellington band would get through mutes and through just kind of smears. Was that something that you were consciously trying to do - to take some of the sounds of early jazz and use them in this new avant-garde setting?

RUDD: Well, I did need to have a lot more just theoretical knowledge to be able to play in the new setting. However, the traditional expressive devices that I had from the old music stayed with me and were more musically transformed as a result of further study in composition and arranging and playing with advanced musicians, such as Cecil Taylor. Herbie Nichols was also very important to me in this respect because he played with a lot of traditional bands - a great pianist and composer. He also saw in me the fact that I had a great mammalian vocabulary, so to speak.

GROSS: Mammalian?

RUDD: Mammalian vocabulary.

GROSS: What do you mean by mammalian?

RUDD: Well, I mean, you talk about growls and smears and all kinds of vocal effects or what's called gut bucket and dirty and so forth. And you have to realize that this is part of the basic vocabulary - tonal vocabulary of very, very much of the oldest traditions on the planet, not just the United States, but, you know, really old places like - Africa, China and New Guinea and so forth, siberia, you know, the Eskimos - very, very guttural, lots of rasp and lots of sounds with a tremendous edge to them and many, many colors. But I would have to describe it all, I guess, by just calling it a very vocal.

DAVIES: Roswell Rudd speaking with Terry Gross in 2002. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to Terry's interview with Trombonist Roswell Rudd recorded in 2002. Rudd died in December at the age of 82.


GROSS: Now, in the early '60s, part of the avant-garde was also associated with the Black Consciousness Movement. As a white musician, was it ever awkward for you during that period?

RUDD: I was really inspired by the controversy and the energy that was coming out of the controversy of those times. I was a Freedom Rider, and I was very involved in civil rights causes. And I just felt that what we were doing in the music - a lot of that feeling of the emotion tied in with the fight for civil rights, you know, the cry for justice, the cry for equality. I felt that that was very much a part of my music all the time, not just during this period.

It was wonderful the way that audiences would be waiting for us to show up sometimes. You know, they'd be out in front of the performance spaces waiting for us to come, waiting for us to show up because we were like a voice that was expressing their feelings. Then there would be people in opposition to this. And so at a lot of these performances, there would be the yeas and the nays. And it would be just tumultuous - such a opportunity for growth and change.

GROSS: Why don't we hear a composition and performance from the era we're talking about? This is 1961. It's a composition of yours called "Yankee No-How." How is the music we're hearing going to relate to what we've been talking about, about the time? This is 1961. It's a composition of yours called "Yankee No-How." How is the music we're hearing going to relate to what we've been talking about about the time?

RUDD: Well, I think you're going to hear free counterpoint, plenty of free counterpoint, and you will hear it at times sounding like a Dixieland band and at times sounding like a band you've never heard before. And in a way, I'm playing the transition from the old jazz to the new jazz, so to speak, in the course of this performance. And that's kind of the way that I had it set up conceptually when I did it.

I mention, I think, that I was thinking about Charles Ives and some of the older Yankee composers and how did I as a another Yankee, as a younger Yankee, how did I fit into the evolution into modern times from what they did? You know that Ives was a great improviser, and most people refer to him as a great tinkerer with musical variables. A lot of the - a lot of what happens in "Yankee No-How" here is about tinkering and improvising.

GROSS: So let's hear your composition. I think I might have said it was from the early '60s. It's actually recorded in 1966. This is "Yankee No-How," a composition by Roswell Rudd, with him featured on trombone.


GROSS: That's Roswell Rudd recorded in 1966. Roswell Rudd on trombone with Robin Kenyatta on alto saxophone, Giuseppi Logan, flute, Charlie Haden and Lewis Warrell on bass and Beaver Harris on drums. Why were you gone for a few years? Why were you away from recording or even from performing in New York?

RUDD: Well, I went into teaching, and that sort of precluded recording on any kind of a regular basis, but actually I had only been averaging about one record every seven years before that. And then after teaching for a while at the University of Maine, I felt a need to get back to New York again. And I got as close as Woodstock, but really what I ended up doing was commercial work in a resort hotel, which was very good for me actually. I learned a lot about vaudeville tradition and show business and doing other things besides playing the trombone on a stage.

GROSS: Well, the resort hotel that you referred to is - was the old Granit Hotel in the Borscht Belt.

RUDD: That's right.

GROSS: And I know during the summer, anyways, that the crowd there is mostly retirees either from New York or people from Florida who want to escape the heat of the summer and come up north for a few weeks. And I doubt most of the people in that crowd had any idea who you were and how important you'd been in the avant-garde. You must have felt like a real fish out of water, like somebody in a completely different environment performing to an audience that had no clue as to what you were really about musically.

RUDD: Yeah. The thing is with me is always to connect with them not if - not how they're connected with me. And I must say that the crowd at the hotel changed every week. You know, one week it would be the Polish police of Philadelphia, and the next week it might be a Caribbean festival from Brooklyn.

GROSS: What were the tunes that were in your repertoire during that period?

RUDD: Naturally, the emphasis would be on standards, show tunes and dance music, a lot of Latin music. And of course, there was all this, you know, sight-reading, a lot of different shows, special material with comedians and singers, fire-eaters, puppeteers, you name it. I was composing the whole time, and I was inspired by a lot of the performances, just their energy and their experience and the new things that I was learning from them.

DAVIES: Roswell Rudd speaking with Terry Gross in 2002. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening back to Terry's interview with trombonist Roswell Rudd recorded in 2002. Rudd died in December at the age of 82.


GROSS: Roswell Rudd, I think one of the things I love about your playing is that no matter what context you're playing in, there's this ebullience in your playing and this - usually this sense of humor and big heart no matter how either Dixie or avant-garde the playing is. And I don't know if you have anything to say about that or not.

RUDD: Well, I think the essential thing for anybody who's at all expressive with their personality through a voice or an instrument is having a sound, having an identifiable sound. And I think that's maybe what you're talking about here, that you sort of pick me out by a certain ring or vibration, the - a color that comes out of the horn when I'm playing.

GROSS: That's right.

RUDD: And the really great all-time improvisers in jazz such as Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge - you know the ones - Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie. I mean, you can hear three seconds, you know, just a little sample, and right away you know who it is. And it's in the sound. It's in the sound. And then you can go on to say, well, it's in the choices, it's in the dynamics. But the first thing that you hear, the sound and the personality coming out, that's what initially identifies anybody in this music.

GROSS: Well, you're right, and you really do have a very identifiable sound. Is that a sound that you consciously created, or was it just the sound that you had?

RUDD: Could be a prenatal sound.

GROSS: (Laughter).

RUDD: Could be a sound - could be a sound coming from my parents. Who knows? It goes all the way back, you know. But basically it's the first sound that I made when I - when I was giving - given that mellophone in grammar school and brought it home and blew on it. And this phenomenon came out. And I said, damn, that's me. And then I went to work on that for the last 40 or 50 years. And that's what you hear, refinements of that (laughter).

GROSS: Well, Roswell Rudd, thank you so much for talking with us.

RUDD: It's been my pleasure, Terry.

DAVIES: Roswell Rudd recorded in 2002. He died December 21 at the age of 82. On Monday's show, the opioid crisis. We explore the origins of the deadliest drug overdose crisis in American history and some of the new public health approaches being tried as an alternative to punishment. Vancouver is experimenting with prescription heroin. We'll talk with German Lopez, a senior reporter for Vox who's been covering drug policy since 2010. Hope you can join us.


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